Then the army rose and split into its two columns, each one to assault a flight of stone steps, eight feet wide, thirty feet high. Bruno’s remaining archers formed line and began to shoot up at the walkways with their weak breast-bows. Their duty was only to hinder the crossbowmen, prevent them from shooting down the armored men making the foot-assault. For a few moments arrows and quarrels went to and fro, then the answering shot died down: most of the cross-bowmen had used up their missiles in the night, could not fit the enemy’s arrows into their specialized weapons. Bruno’s trumpets blew for the charge.
He did not take a front-rank place himself, had ordered Agilulf to hang back likewise in the second, parallel column. The charge was spearheaded by the youngest of his Ritters, anxious for glory, afire with devotion to Savior and Emperor. As the armored men strode swiftly up the steps, the Viking swordsmen moved to block them, five men against five men on each of the two flights. Guthmund sub-king of the Swedes headed one blunt wedge, Brand’s cousin Styrr the other. As the Lance-knights came on, Styrr faced them, ignoring the arrows that skipped on the stones around him, took his axe in two hands by the handle, held it horizontally with his hands shoulder-width apart. He leapt suddenly through the hoop he had made with his knees up to his chin, held the axe behind him and leapt back again. His men laughed and cheered, Styrr threw the axe gleefully high in the air, caught it as it came glinting down.
The leading Ritter sprinted the last few steps to try to catch the bearded fool while he was in mid-gambol. His sword licked out in a stab from below, aimed at the thigh. Styrr, two steps above, leapt high into the air again, above the blade, came down on his feet and swung with all his force. The Ritter caught it on the shield, as Styrr had known he would, but the axe’s upper horn drove through wood and leather and metal and deep into the arm behind. Styrr was ripping back almost before the stroke had landed, too great a follow-through would leave it embedded in a shield. He parried a slash with his axe-handle against the flat of the blade, swung again backhand, saw another gash open up along the young knight’s shoulder. A feint, another feint, and the third blow went home between shield and sword, splitting his enemy’s breastbone.
Watching critically, Brand nodded in approval. He had spent a long time showing his cousin how to fight with axe against sword, trading the weaker wood handle against the heavier final blow. He had learned well. In a clangor of metal the Vikings heaved forward, pushed their enemies back down the upper steps, fell back again to leave a space between them, encumbered now by the dead and the wounded crawling back to each side.
Bruno looked from one side to the other. Both columns blocked, he saw, and the archers making no impact against armored men well above them. Time to take a hand himself, render his own service to God. He reached across to remove the Holy Lance from its holder, changed his mind and left it where it was. It was God’s service he was doing today, perhaps the greatest he had ever done. While the Lance was with him he was invincible. He stepped forward from the massed ranks at the foot of the stair.
Brand recognized him instantly by the breadth of his shoulders, that made his medium height seem squat, ape-like. He felt a shock of cold through his belly, where Ivar’s sword had driven through it. Fear, the fear he had not felt in skirmishes against lesser men. But now a real champion had come. Perhaps Styrr was the man to face him. He had the strength of their shared marbendill ancestry, the blood of Barn Troll’s-son. He had never felt a serious wound, was young and confident as Brand himself was not.
Bruno went up the stairs like a leopard, taking them two at a time at first, then springing up them, leaping from side to side between the corpses as if he were on flat ground and his armor had no weight. Styrr took two steps down to meet him, his supporters hanging back to let him face the challenge alone. As the Emperor sprang up and up, Styrr whirled his axe and struck for the shield. Too soon, thought Brand, too hurried. He began to force his way through the block of watching Vikings to come to the help of his kinsman.